There has been a surge in EA outreach towards university and high school students.
Generally a higher proportion of students show interest in EA compared to professionals, but just because it's easier to get people interested does not mean that it's the most impactful use of time.
This is potentially a mistaken use of limited community building resources and could lead to an imbalance in the age distribution of people interested in EA and bottleneck the future growth of EA or worse, lock EA into being a permanent youth movement.
To improve this situation, EA movement building organisations can make changes in the actions they promote for students. Students interested in community building could work in more neglected areas.
Why has EA community building been focused on students?
It seems that this is a historical coincidence rather than a deliberately chosen path. EA was founded in Oxford, mainly by students, and their initial community building was focused on Oxford, Cambridge and similar universities. Over the last ten years there has been multiple iterations, lessons learned and funding for university group organising. So it isn’t that surprising that there are lots of stories of people who heard about EA in university and then went on to get involved in EA.
This is in contrast to community building efforts for professional, cause and interest groups which have started to become more organised in the last couple of years, with some of them having full time organisers for the first time this year (EA Consulting Network, UK Civil Service). There has been a lot less time to see the potential outcomes of this work in direct comparison to university group organising.
Some people have said that they focus on students because they show more interest in EA than professionals. This is likely true, it definitely seems that it’s easier for students to attend events and get more involved with EA sooner. I think even if students are 10 times more likely to get involved, this may be a mistaken strategy to pursue.
It's a mistake to focus on students
- Professionals have more experience, influence and networks. As EA is growing there is more need for people who have experience managing people and supporting larger organisations. It can take a long time to wait for students to graduate and gain those skills whilst maintaining interest in EA (this may be especially relevant for people with shorter AI timelines).
- If we keep focusing on students we won't be able to fix the mentorship gap. At the moment we have lots of people looking for guidance and very few people able to provide the right level of support. Below there are two age distributions to show how EA currently seems vs what may be a more ideal distribution.
- The average age in EA used to be going up one year every one or two years. The EA survey from 2020 shows that the trend had reversed with the mean and median both going down one year. According to 80,000 Hours the age that people tend to have the most impact is usually 36+.
- EA can give off the impression of being a youth movement. This can lead to professionals bouncing when they encounter EA and assuming that it is not a place meant for them. Even professionals who have been interested for a while may find it hard working directly at EA organisations if there is no consideration for having to support a family, healthcare and uncertainty around funding.
We shouldn't ignore students though
I don’t think we should stop student community building, this is more about what we should do on the margin. There is a lot to be gained by having organisers at the top 20-50 universities. There are also plenty of ways that talented young people can be discovered without going through a university group. For example there are fellowships, essay prizes, grants, volunteering, internships, etc.
Better stories to tell potential student organisers
There are lots of stories of people having been university organisers and many places recommend being a student organiser as a top priority. This means a lot of students will try out community building even when it's not something they have an aptitude for, a strong interest in or the best option for the community as a whole.
Organisations could add nuance or remove these suggestions and encourage other options more strongly. Students at the moment could reconsider whether building a group at their university is actually the best thing to be doing. I've added some ideas below on what students and the EA movement might find to be a more valuable use of time.
- Internships/volunteering at organisations that are impactful or good for career capital
- Running cause specific student groups (AI, x-risks, One for the World, alt protein)
- Supporting other EA projects with their community building work
- Skilling up in more relevant areas than event organising and tabling
I'm concerned that there is focus on students because the metrics chosen go up faster in the short term without looking at the longer term health of the community.
Current composition of EA
For ease of comparison, we re-plotted the EA Survey data using the same format as your plot below.
Age of recruitment to EA
I also think it's worth noting that the median age at which people first get involved in EA is not super young (around 24 across years, close to the cusp of your two main categories). In our survey of the general public, people aged 18-24 were also less likely to report having heard of EA than 25-44 year olds. This is compatible with student-recruitment being important for the community (even if the average age of recruitment is somewhat older than student age), and slightly pushing the age of the community in a younger direction, but the effect is small.
This is not to say that the community wouldn't benefit from more older (>35) professionals (which seems very plausible). But the problem seems broader than a student focus. Indeed, the vast majority of people in EA do not get involved due to student outreach (and plausibly, not due to any kind of direct EA outreach); yet I think we still tend to attract and retain predominantly people in their mid-20s to early 30s.
Thanks for doing this, that's great to see the real data. Would be good to see if this has changed in the last couple of years.
If we look at the median age at which people first got involved in EA over the last few years (split by how many years they've been involved in EA to account for differential attrition), we can see that the median age of people first getting involved in EA in 2018, 2019 and 2020 declined (from 27 to 25 and then to 24).
I think the age at which people get involved in EA seems most relevant to your question, since average age across survey years is influenced by other factors (e.g. the mean age in EAS 2020 was lower, but this is largely due to EAS 2020 having more people in the newest cohorts than in previous survey years). But let me know if there's something else in particular you want to see.
Students have by far the most flexibility in their careers. It's not uncommon for university students (in the US--maybe some other age in other countries) to do things like switch their major from biology to economics; except in very rare circumstances, 40 year old biologists do not become economists. If you suppose that certain high-impact career paths require very special skills not common in the population, then you might need people to develop those skills early rather than try to find people who already have them. There are some areas of EA that probably do have this property, though the popular perception of it is maybe overblown.
I do think it would be good if there could be more experienced older people in EA, since I think there are probably many people out there with highly relevant and useful experience who haven't heard of EA but would be receptive.
I think with a more professional focused model there wouldn't be asks for people to switch professions, but for there to be larger career networks that can support EA by shifting directly into impactful roles using the skills they've already got.
There are also lots of experienced people who have heard of EA over the last decade but haven't got more involved as there has been less outreach directed towards them and ways for them to engage.
I’m a bit put off by the claim that the student focus is an historical coincidence. It seems to me that people have really doubled down on that commitment because of the career flexibility students have (as Thomas mentioned). Maybe in the early years of the movement this was a historical coincidence but I don’t think ‘historical coincidence’ is an honest answer to the question “Why has EA community building been focused on students?” nowadays.
Fwiw I don’t think we should focus only on students and agree with a lot of the rest of the post
I'm maybe 70% on that claim, I do think founders effects play a big part in most movements and that early success has led people to overweight current strategies.
I agree that it would be better if EA had a more balanced age distribution. Anecdotally, I don't think we have enough mentorship opportunities and mid-career professionals to support the recent influx of young people into EA. I think it would also create a better epistemic culture if the median person in EA has deeper expertise in a field/skill-set as opposed to having lots of young people narrowly following 80k's advice.
I don't buy the claim though that we shouldn't focus on student outreach. I think the debate over student outreach is much more about how it's done rather than if it should be done.
I agree with you too that most students shouldn't necessarily be organizing their group. FWIW at Brown, pretty much everyone on our leadership team is prioritizing skilling up (through part-time research positions, classes, internships, etc.) alongside doing ~5 hours a week of group organizing.
The age distribution problem could also self-correct itself over the next 10 years? I think we should mostly be concerned if the fraction of young people in EA continues to grow faster than the fraction of older age groups. I also think we've been grabbing a lot of the low-hanging fruit at top universities and this will start to stabilize in the next few years (i.e. there's a finite number of people who would be really into EA at top universities). I could be wrong though if we continue to have exponential growth of new uni groups.
Has anyone thought about outreach to retirees? They're no longer locked into a career, and could help fill the experience gap with part-time mentorship, consulting, or advisory work. I imagine many would be excited to work with young people & give back.
Could try cold messaging retirees on linkedin who seem to have relevant skills/expertise...
I’ve thought about this! Actually have a couple retirees in my local EA group looking to help.
Unfortunately I asked around at EAG DC and the general response seemed to be “great idea, but I don’t know anyone focused on that.”
I got a lot of general referrals to the standard career orgs, but I think an org focusing on retirees could be highly impactful.
Could be your, or their, comparative advantage to start such an org -- if you already have retirees in your group, you could make a special effort to help them find ways to contribute, talk to them about outreach, and see if there's a model which can be scaled up.
Unfortunately I’m already deep in another project which I think is also very high value. Might look into this later on.
I’ve thought about it but I’m convinced my current startup is a more impactful area. Think it would be a great opportunity for someone without a lot of career capital.
It's an interesting perspective, but I strongly disagree with it for a number of reasons.
Firstly, for most projects, you only need a few senior managers and you can fill the rest of the roles with talented junior folk. The advantage of this approach is that more junior folk are much easier to recruit. So I think we need additional recruitment pipelines to bring in more senior people with specific skills that we need, but I'm in favour of going hard on college recruiting because I'm not expecting pipelines targeting more senior people to bring in anywhere near the numbers.
Secondly, I don't actually think it's a bad thing for EA to be seen as a youth movement and if it was, certainly not enough to want to bring less young and talented people into the movement. For a start, "capture the youth market and grow your influence as they climb the career ladder" is an old classic strategy for movements to become massively influential. And it's a even better strategy for EA than most movements because EA has access to a massive pool of money that allows us to accelerate people's career and personal growth
If you're in the middle of successfully pulling it off the last thing you want to do is nix it due to vague concerns about perceptions. And even if you tried, you probably wouldn't have much impact on EA being seen as a youth movement anyway, since uni students are so much easier to bring in, yet alone really bring in that many older more senior people.
Thirdly, the problem of "being a youth movement" will solve itself over time as people age. Sure the average age might have decreased in EA recently due to a massive focus on college recruiting, but you haven't provided any reason to doubt that it'll be anything more than a short-term phenomenon.
Fourthly, if we want to draw in more experienced people, it'd be much easier to just spin up another brand, rather than try to rebrand something that already has particular connotations. And then maybe you actually manage to capture both markets. To be clear, by brand I don't just mean a different splash of paint, but something more substantial, really constructing a new program that satisifies the needs and desires of this older crowd. And sure, you could try to shift EA activities so that they sort of satisfy the younger crowd and sort of satisfy the older crowd, but quoting JJ Hepburn "An event for everyone is an event for no-one".
Or I could also finish with another old classic, "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".
"If we want to draw in more experienced people, it'd be much easier to just spin up another brand, rather than try to rebrand something that already has particular connotations."
This strikes me as probably incorrect. Creating a new brand is really hard, and minor shifts in branding to de-emphasise students would be fairly simple. In my experience, the EA brand and EA ideas are sufficiently appealing to a fairly broad range of older people. The problem is that loads of older people are really interested in EA ideas- think Sam Harris' audience or the median owner of a Peter Singer book- but they find that: a) It's socially weird being around uni students; b) Few of the materials, from 80k to Intro fellowships, seem targeted to them; c) It's way harder to commit to a social movement.
I've facilitated for EA intro programs with diverse ages, and the 'next steps' stage at the end of an intro fellowship is way different for 20 year olds to 40 year olds- for a 20 year old, basically "Just go to your uni EA group and get more involved" is a good level of commitment, whereas a 40 year old has to make far more difficult choices. But I also feel that if this 40 year-old is willing to commit time to EA, this is a more costly signal than a student doing so, so I often feel bullish about their career impact.
My preferred solutions are fairly marginal, just making it a bit easier and more comfortable for older people to get involved: 1) Groups like 80k put a bit more effort into advice for later career people; 2) Events targeting older high-impact professionals (and more 'normal' older people; EA for parents is a good idea); 3) Highlight a few 'role models' (on the EA intro course, for example, or an 80k podcast guest)- people who've become high-impact EAs in later life.
Sure, sometimes I've felt strange hanging around people much younger than me, but the proposed solution is to recruit less students, then the cure is worse than the disease.
And some older people will end up joining the EA movement, but if we have other "brands", such as High Impact Professionals , we may be able to ensure that a decent number of people who "bounce off" end up joining another brand instead via referal.
Sounds suspiciously like they want a different kind of program more targeted at them =P. And if a program is going to be run, it should aim to develop its own brand.
Personally, I would suggest that they de-emphasise the association with EA. I think a note of the bottom of the page "Part of the EA network" would be enough.
I'd love to get more thoughts on this. In my model, a lot of things for which there is a mentorship gap, the lack is of mentors with very relevant-to-EA kinds of experience - how to successfully run an EA-aligned organisation, knowledge of AI alignment, research taste working on EA projects, and that it is not significantly more difficult for a smart young person to skill up in these things than an older professional. The flexibility that students have in changing their focus comes in really handy here.
There are other things like how to get certain types of policy careers or climb some non-EA ladders in general that don't fit the above. And outreach to people with that knowledge and experience seems valuable.